Union claims safety issues cause of 2021 derailment

This drone photo taken by the OPP shows the extent of the damage immediately following the collision of CN trains 149 and 532 on September 2, 2021. (Supplied/OPP photo via TSB)

PRESCOTT – A long-awaited Transportation Safety Board report released last Wednesday on the 2021 head-on collision between two CN freight trains cited alcohol use by a rail traffic controller as a contributing factor. The union representing rail traffic controllers says the rail company is ultimately to blame for the derailment due to safety issues.

The TSB report released March 13 said that the RTC (dispatcher) on duty at the time of the September 2, 2021 derailment, gave CN Train 532 clearance to enter the Toronto-Montréal mainline from a siding, having believed that westbound Train 149 had already passed. It had not.

“The investigation determined that, at the time of the accident, the Rail Traffic Controller had a complex workload, and his attention was diverted to other competing tasks. When he issued permission to Train 532 to enter the main track, he assumed that Train 149 had already passed the switch. Additionally, he did not obtain the required location report from Train 149 before permitting Train 532 to access the main track,” said the report.

The crew from 532 changed the switch to allow them to enter the mainline. The crew of 149, seeing the track was aligned into the siding and immediately applied the emergency brakes for their train. The TSB estimated the speed of Train 149 was 37 miles per hour when the two trains collided head-on. Four locomotives, and 16 cars derailed. One crew member was seriously injured, two crew members suffered minor injuries. Almost 1,000 feet of track was damaged from the derailment, which closed the line to passenger and freight service for more than 24 hours.

The unnamed RTC employee was found to have a blood alcohol level of 0.023 per cent when tested approximately two hours after the derailment occurred. It is company policy to test the BAC of employees after an incident. A third-party testing company estimated that the RTC’s BAC was between 0.044 and 0.069 per cent at the time of the collision, and between 0.064 and 0.109 per cent at the start of his shift. The legal limit for operating a motor vehicle in Ontario is 0.08 per cent. CN’s company policy for impairment is 0.04 per cent.

The TSB report said that Railway Safety Act does not have a time period that prohibits use of alcohol or cannabis by railway employees before working, unlike the Canadian Aviation Regulations which do.

Christopher Monette, director of public affairs for Teamsters Canada, the union which represents CN’s RTC employees said that the TSB report highlighting alcohol being a factor ignores existing safety issues.

Many of the switches for industrial sidings on the CN line, known as the Kingston Subdivision, are manually operated and lack electric locks. Those locks detect if a switch is aligned incorrectly. “The collision occurred after a railway switch was operated and mistakenly sent two trains on a collision course,” explained Monette. “Had the switch been equipped with an electronic lock, it would have detected the oncoming train preventing the switch’s operation until safe.”

Electronic switch locks have been used for several decades, however signal upgrades by CN in the past 20 years saw many of these removed.

Monette said that the union believed that the switch involved in the collision had never been equipped with an electronic lock.

“The company has since upgraded this switch and two others – a clear case of too little, too late,” he said adding. “Had CN been proactive and implemented electronic locks along this busy segment of the Québec-Windsor rail corridor, this collision would never have occurred. Instead, CN opted to put profits over safety with catastrophic results.”
Monette said it was “disheartening” the focus on alcohol in the report.

“The collision could have still easily occurred had the RTC been completely sober,” he said condemning the company for using the collision to push for mandatory random workplace drug and alcohol testing. “While we obviously do not condone alcohol impairment at work, the report’s proposed “dry periods” before shifts ignores how the rail industry functions.”

Many of the running trades on a railway (engineer, conductor, RTC) work on an on-call basis and do not know their start time for a shift until two hours before it begins.

Monette said that asking employees to refrain from drinking for 12-24 hours before a shift when only finding out that shift two hours before it starts is “not a workable solution.”

“Impairment has only been cited as a factor in four incidents since 1995,” he said. “But until CN makes the appropriate upgrades to its safety infrastructure, it is only a matter of time before a similar collision occurs again.

The union confirmed it is challenging the dismissal of the RTC working at the time

CN representatives issued a statement following the release of the TSB report. “We are disappointed that the report did not recommend a clearer framework regarding drug and alcohol consumption in safety critical positions. CN remains firm in its belief that random testing employees in safety-critical positions is the only way to deter impairment at work. This is an important tool for preventing incidents and addressing associated safety concerns.”

The company did not respond to follow up questions about the safety equipment on the rail line at the time of the September 2021 derailment.

Transport Canada officials said the federal ministry is reviewing the report. “Although the TSB has no recommendations for Transport Canada in their report, the department will review the findings to determine if further action is necessary.” Transport Canada did not answer if there are plans to introduce legislation requiring a 12-24 hour ban on alcohol or cannabis use prior to employees reporting to work.

Department representatives said, “The Canadian Rail Operating Rules prohibit the use or possession of intoxicants and/or narcotics prior to or while on duty. Safety is Transport Canada’s top priority, and the department is continuously working on making our railway system as safe as possible for Canadians.”

A question about the safety of the line and if Transport Canada was going to mandate any upgrades to the line was also unanswered.

There are 12 VIA Rail passenger trains and 16-20 CN Freight trains travelling that line daily.

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